A former hostage of the so-called Isis “Beatles” described how he and his fellow inmates were given dog names by their jailers, who subjected them to a “regime of punishment” for perceived transgressions.
Federico Motka, an Italian laborer held by Isis for 14 months, described his brutal treatment by the four British jihadists during the trial of El Shafee Elsheikh, accused of being one of the four.
Elsheikh, 33, is charged with involvement in a large-scale hostage crisis while he was with Isis in Syria that ultimately led to the killing of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aides Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. The indictment also blames him for the deaths of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.
The group is believed to have been involved in kidnapping at least 27 people in Syria between 2012 and 2015, most of them Westerners.
Mr Motka described the moment of his abduction along with colleague David Haines while they were conducting an investigation in northern Syria in March 2013. He said he was on the phone with his boss when eight masked, gunmen surrounded their car and ordered them out.
He said to his boss, “I think I’m being kidnapped,” he told the court.
As they were driven deeper into Syria, Mr Motka said one of the kidnappers approached Mr Haines and asked him in British-accented English where he was from and what he was doing there, before adding: “Welcome to Syria, you mutt .”
Soon after, the pair would identify at least three British men among their captors. These three British men were present when Mr Motka was arrested, detained and released in May 2014.
Mr Motka described how he and other hostages came up with the nickname for the group of four British Isis members later identified as Elshiekh, Alexanda Kotey, Aine Lesley Davis and Mohammed Emwazi, an Isis executioner who went by his nickname ” Jihadi John” is known. ‘
“We started calling them ‘the Brits,'” Mr Motka said, but they were afraid their guards would find out what they were talking about, so instead they referred to them as ‘The Beatles’. They gave each of them names: Ringo, George, John and Paul.
Mr Motka went on to describe beatings and torture by the British jihadists, who at times seemed to revel in their brutality.
“They played a lot of games with us,” he said. “They gave us dog names and told us if they called us day or night that we had to answer.” The penalty for noncompliance is caning, he added.
Mr. Motka also described an incident where one of the group lost his temper while going to the toilet at night.
“Something I said triggered it. They came in 20 minutes later and started punching and kicking me,” he said. “They called me a posh motherfucker for going to boarding school.”
After the first few weeks of captivity, which Motka described as “calm,” that all changed when he was accused of trying to escape prison and speaking to a Syrian prisoner. From then on, a “penal regime” was introduced.
Mr Motka said there was a specific protocol implemented by the Beatles during their captivity: prisoners had to kneel and face the wall when entering the cell. The British wore full balaclavas with only their eyes showing at all times. In the courtroom, Elsheikh watched the testimony while wearing a mask that covered the lower half of his face.
Elsheikh, who was born in Sudan and then raised in the UK, is the most prominent Isis member on trial in the US. He went to Syria in 2012 and joined an offshoot of Al Qaeda there. Later, he and his girlfriend Alexanda Kotey would pledge allegiance to Isis, joining fellow Britishers Emwazi and Davis.
Emwazi was perhaps the most notorious of the group and was considered a ringleader. Known as “Jihadi John,” he performed the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning – acts which Isis filmed and published in propaganda videos.
Elsheikh and Kotey were captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in 2018 while fleeing the former Isis capital of Raqqa disguised as civilians. They were held in Syria until October 2020, when they were eventually taken to the US to stand trial.
Kotey pleaded guilty to the murders of Foley, Sotloff, Meuller and Kassig in September 2021 and is due to be sentenced next month. Emwazi was killed in a drone attack in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the fourth member of the group, was convicted in Turkey in 2017 on terrorism charges and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
After Elsheikh’s defense team previously admitted to being one of the so-called Beatles in media interviews following his capture, this week said the evidence would not prove he was a member of the cell but a “simple Isis soldier”.
Prosecutors are likely to call witnesses who will identify Elsheikh as the person who held her captive. In his statement, Mr Motka described sitting next to “Ringo” as British militants drove him to a location for his release.
“He had a beard that wasn’t as full as some of the others,” he said.